Beirut — A Mauritanian criminal court has charged an activist with incitement to violence and racial hatred for social media messages decrying racial discrimination in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should drop all charges against the activist, Abdallahi Salem Ould Yali, relating to his purely peaceful speech on behalf of his marginalized community, and ensure he has speedy access to all the evidence against him.
Yali has been in pre-charge detention in Nouakchott prison since his arrest on January 24, 2018. He faces a long prison sentence if convicted as charged under the penal code, the cybercrimes law, and the counterterrorism law.
"No one should be put on trial simply for pointing out the plight of their own community," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "If the authorities are alleging actual incitement to violence, they should give Yali and his representatives timely access to the evidence they are using against him."
The referral order, issued by an investigating judge in the West Nouakchott Court's anti-terrorism branch on September 3, indicates that the charges are based solely on Yali's WhatsApp messages. It does not specify the number or the dates of those messages but says Yali was active in a WhatsApp group that included some 250 participants.
In WhatsApp messages that Human Rights Watch has heard and that are seemingly Yali's, the 43-year-old activist decries the lot of his marginalized Haratines community. Haratines are the dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking descendants of slaves who constitute about one-third of the country's population. In those clips, the speaker calls on the Haratines community to stand up for their rights and resist "the system," elites, and President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.
The referral order said that Yali also declared, in a WhatsApp group, "these dogs must be shown their limits," and "bring weapons from outside and I will stand with you." Yali's lawyer, Ahmed Ely Messoud, told Human Rights Watch that he could not confirm these quotes because the court had not yet made available to the defense any voice recordings that may be part of the case file
Even if it were to turn out that Yali had made such remarks in a WhatsApp group, prosecutions for incitement to violence or racial hatred should be conducted under an overall framework of respect for freedom of speech, as set out by United Nations and other experts in the Rabat Plan of Action. Detention before trial should be the exception, not the norm, Human Rights Watch said.
Yali is charged under article 83 of the penal code for "inciting citizens to arm themselves against the authority of the state or against one another." The articles of the cybercrime law that he allegedly violated punish "incitement to violence or racial hatred" and "insult[ing] a person by reason of his belonging to a race or color, or ancestry, or national or ethnic origin, or a group that is defined by any of these characteristics." He is also charged under the 2010 counterterrorism law, which includes in its definition of a terrorist act "an appeal to incite ethnic, racial or religious fanaticism."
Human Rights Watch researchers met with Yali's family during a visit to Nouakchott on September 6. His relatives said he had no prior criminal record and was the sole breadwinner for his family, including his six children.
No trial date has been set; the courts are still in their summer recess.
Ethnicity and discrimination are politically sensitive issues in Mauritania and form the basis for many laws that contain broad provisions used to punish peaceful critical speech, Human Rights Watch said.
Mauritanian authorities should review the penal code, the cybercrime law, and the counterterrorism law, Human Rights Watch said. They should eliminate overbroad and sweeping articles that fail to meet international human rights norms for defining such offenses as incitement to commit violence or racial hatred clearly and narrowly.
In December 2014, a court sentenced a popular blogger, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaïtir, to death for apostasy, because of a blog post criticizing caste discrimination. Although an appeals court commuted his sentence to two years in prison, making him eligible for immediate release, he remains in arbitrary detention in an unrevealed location.